Silence Over Rwanda

It was a familiar sight: a photograph of a drawn, ashen-faced man standing next to rows of skulls. He looked liked many of the tourists who stand at Cambodia's Choeung Ek killing field, dazed and staring at the rows of bones, craniums stoved in by machetes and clubs and garden hoes.

But the man was no tourist. His powerful shoulders gave away his military past; the down-turned eyes hinted at horrors witnessed and never forgotten. The photograph was a publicity still for a film; the man in the photo is retired lieutenant general Roméo Dallaire, the Canadian who presided over the doomed UN peacekeeping force in Rwanda, a ragtag outfit deprived of the mandate to fulfill any part of its moniker.

The world can't get enough of Rwanda these days, some 10 years too late. Shake Hands With the Devil: The Journey of Roméo Dallaire is the latest film to tackle the horrific events that resulted in the deaths of 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 100 days. Hotel Rwanda is the flip negative of the Dallaire documentary -- a tale of what one man could do to save innocents. HBO aired Sometime in April; PBS's Frontline revisited the tragedy with “Ghosts of Rwanda.” What's behind the trend? Is it expiation-by-proxy for dithering over crises in Darfur and the Congo? Or does it just take 10 years to say “I'm sorry”?

Shake Hands With the Devil is a damning indictment of the practice of international peacekeeping, predicated on worn-out myths that privilege Western conflicts (the former Yugoslavia); face-saving tactics; and a faceless bureaucracy that offers its members anonymous absolution, according to Dallaire. Peter Raymont's documentary traces Dallaire's struggle against the dehumanizing of both peacekeepers and the people whom they are supposed to protect. The film follows the general's return to Rwanda 10 years later -- not to seek forgiveness but to mourn and to fight against forgetting. One man, one witness, to the world's indifference.

Dallaire walks through Rwanda, its burial grounds and battlefields and bullet-pocked buildings, his face holding the weariness of someone whose memories never sleep. Based on Dallaire's 2004 book, Shake Hands With the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, the film traces the events that led to the failure of his mission: the UN order that Dallaire cease planning raids of weapons caches in January 1994; the emergence of an unknown “third force” that would become the violent Interahamwe; the death of the country's Hutu president in a plane crash; and the killings of 10 Belgian peacekeepers, which would cause the former colonial power to pull its large contingent out of the country.

Ranging as it does over such complex material, the film sometimes veers into scattershot storytelling, filling every inch with Dallaire's reminisces. At times, one wishes for a bit more space around the scenes, room for Dallaire not only to remember but also to absorb the changes, the present-day reality of the country that is so vivid in his dreams.

As it is, the film focuses on Dallaire's journey into the past more than his take on Rwanda's present, perhaps fitting for one who is so haunted by his memories. Dallaire was hospitalized for post-traumatic stress disorder after he left command, started drinking, and attempted suicide. “I became suicidal because there was no other solution,” he says. “I couldn't stand the loudness of silence.” Now, he tells the camera, he takes pills “just to stay reasonable,” to take off the edge of memories that unreel in his mind, “digitally clear, in slow motion.”

Raymont shows us Dallaire's nightmare visions -- what looks like a dead child, immobile until the eyes move; a river bloated with death; a man with a machete, taking slow, meditative hacks at an unresisting victim; a shot in a church full of bodies. Shoes, clothes, corpses piled in the pews, a body that looks like it belongs on a crucifix -- or has the church's statue of Jesus been brought down to suffer with those he could not save?

Dallaire comes back to forceful life not when he speaks of these shocking memories but, rather, when he delivers devastating critiques about the system that set him up to fail. He stands before an audience at an event in remembrance of the dead; he is both enraged and humbled. “The superpowers had no interest in you,” he says, no interest in a story that was framed as “tribalism repeating itself.” Rwanda had no strategic interest, no oil, no narrative about great religions or Western security. It had only black Africans and perhaps “too many of them anyway,” as Dallaire characterizes Western racism to the Rwandans' anguished, angry groans.

The documentary ticks through those who held shares in complicity -- the Belgians, with their colonial rhetoric and insistence on putting ethnic identity on national ID cards; the Catholic church; the hate radio; the Hutu extremists. And Dallaire himself, as he says to that crowd in Rwanda. He speaks to survivors who resisted the killings, with awed admiration, speaking of their will to “fight for what you believe in.” Those Rwandans' armed insistence in their own survival and right to live, Dallaire implies, is not just an act of resistance to their would-be murderers but to an international community that seemed to find little worth in their continued existence.

Near the end of the film, Dallaire says that, eventually, he would like to live in Rwanda; he looks upon the country's beauty, the resiliency of its people, with genuine love and respect. In this place where he saw hell break loose, Dallaire says, he may also find “the serenity that I have longed for, ultimately.” He says this with the same forceful, unvarnished honesty as when he spoke before that audience in Rwanda, telling them, “I, Roméo Dallaire, as force commander, failed the Rwandan people.” But in his fierce insistence on remembrance and resistance to official indifference, in his desire to become part of Rwanda's ongoing healing in the present, he stands by them as a man.

Noy Thrupkaew is a Prospect senior correspondent.

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